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Previous Performances
I cannot imagine a more delicate, luminous and emotionally piercing production... Heartbreaking simplicityThe Times
Chekhov as it should be: Declan Donnellan directs an ensemble of the finest Russian actorsThe Irish Independent
Chekhov's characters, whom we think we know all too well, suddenly burst open, dazzlingly and unforgettably. No one other than Donnellan could have achieved this. He is the first and the unrepeatable.Kommersant, Russia
Miraculous Simplicity. Superb!Le Figaro, France
Heartbreaking simplicity; simply heartbreakingThe Times

Produced by Chekhov International Theatre Festival; Les Gémeaux/Sceaux/Scène Nationale; and La Filature/Scène Nationale de Mulhouse, in association with Cheek by Jowl.

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Cast
Cast in order of speaking
Valery PankovAndrey Sergeevich Prozorov
Viktoria TolstoganovaNatalia Ivanovna
Ekaterina SibiryakovaNatalia Ivanovna
Evgenia DmitrievaOlga
Irina GrinevaMasha
Nelly UvarovaIrina
Vitaly EgorovFedor Iljich Kulygin
Evgeny PisarovFedor Iljich Kulygin
Alexander FeklistovAlexandre Ignatievich Vershinin
Andrei KuzichevNikolay Ljvovich Tuzenbakh
Andrei MerzlikinVasily Vasilievich Solenyi
Mikhail ZhigalovIvan Romanovich Chebutykin / Ferapont
Igor YasulovichIvan Romanovich Chebutykin / Ferapont
Yury MakeevAlexey Petrovich Fedotik
Mikhail DementievVladimir Karpovich Rode
Galina MorachyovaAnfisa

Creatives
DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod

2010

Moscow, Moscow, Moscoooow!" murmurs sick-at-heart Irina in the closing minutes of Act 1 of director Declan Donnellan's gorgeously observed "Three Sisters." It's the play's rallying cry, its articulation of eternal restlessness, here uttered by actress Nelli Uvarova with a churning anguish -- and a final "Moscow!" expressed as a sigh that gets caught wrenchingly in her throat.

An American ear may not recognize many of the words spoken in this splendid production, performed in Anton Chekhov's native tongue by a superb Russian cast. But the heart surely connects with all the meticulously realized feeling, the sense of the air being let out of inflated hopes, in a household of declining fortunes in a turn-of-the-20th-century Russian backwater.

Donnellan's "Three Sisters" -- with helpful English surtitles -- had its North American premiere Tuesday night in a lamentably brief engagement in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater; the final Washington performance of the touring production occurred Wednesday night. Unlike so many other stagings of Chekhov, which can leave you with the impression that you've passed through a reverent museum exhibit, this one exudes immediacy, the idea that these neurotic, excitable people from another place and time breathe the same oxygen as you.

The British director, whose creatively elastic company, Cheek by Jowl, has produced this version in concert with the Chekhov International Theatre Festival, enters into a deeply satisfying collaboration with his Slavic ensemble. In the best interpretations, "Three Sisters" is an aching experience, funny at times but also profoundly moving, as it becomes ever clearer for the characters that the more passionately they seek, the less they'll receive.

An audience feels for their resilience, their vows to commit themselves to work, their refusals to give up. Donnellan's staging aids in our viewing them in the clearest light. His set and costume designer, Nick Ormerod, employs only the sparsest of visual elements: several large panels depicting houses or trees; a stack of dining room chairs and assorted small tables; a dollhouse-size model of a home, perhaps evoking the family's country estate, or the sisters' memories of a happier childhood. The play's intense personalities loom especially large in this landscape, whether the portrait is of the spaniel-like devotedness of Masha's husband Kulygin (Sergey Lanbamin) or the blossoming tyranny of Andrey's wife Natasha (Ekaterina Sibiryakova).

At the nexus are the sisters, steady Olga (Evgenia Dmitrieva), disconsolate Masha (Anna Khalilulina) and vibrant Irina. As they moan and fuss and flutter, you're drawn into an authentic-seeming symbiosis: When they dissolve in laughter on the floor together, giggling at the impertinent airs put on by their country bumpkin of a sister-in-law, the sensation is of three women falling into a familiar and comfortable pattern. That their contempt in this moment is laced with a perceptible dread -- Natasha is taking charge of the house in a way none of them is able -- speaks to the degree of psychological specificity in which the actresses invest their portrayals.

'Three Sisters' examines both a socioeconomic and metaphorical state of being: idleness. The play unfolds over several years in the well-to-do household of the sisters and their brother Andrey (Alexey Dadonov), in which the question of what to do with one's time -- some characters have jobs; others boast they've never held one -- seems to be as much a philosophical issue as a practical one. What's changing is the erosion of the youthful sense of life stretching in front of them forever. Andrey, for instance, once thought of as professorial material, has settled for a bureaucratic job in a small town off the beaten track.

In their orbit in this paralyzed domain are other psychically frozen people, most notably the military doctor, Chebutykin (Igor Yasulovich), a drunk so vacant he no longer empathizes with those in his care. Yasulovich gives the best account I've ever heard of the disturbing speech in which Chebutykin confesses to feeling nothing after the accidental death of a patient. "If only I didn't exist," he declares -- not out of guilt, it seems, so much as the abject meaninglessness of his life.

Donnellan's actors apply to scene after scene a crystalline clarity; you can feel the excruciating pull of opposing instincts. Khalilulina's exquisitely played Masha is a case in point. At last stealing an embrace with the man she loves, the utopian romantic Vershinin (a terrific Alexander Feklistov), she drops instantly, shockingly to the floor. Lanbamin's simpering Kulygin is there to scoop her up, and her docility suggests that she consigns herself to the unsatisfying dimensions of her fate.

The cumulative emotional effect has its payoff in the last moments of the play, in the sisters' strangely consoling faith that what they've gone through has a purpose. "One day people will know the reason for all this suffering," one of them says -- an affirmation that in this ensemble's revelatory treatment proves heartbreaking. Peter Marks, The Washington Post at the Kennedy Center. 21 October 2010

2009

A surge in enrolment in Russian language classes is probably a secondary aim of Cheek by Jowl theatre company, but it's hard to experience their all-Russian production of Chekhov without being captivated by the cadences of this impressive ensemble. Cheek by Jowl's directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod are almost honorary Russians by now, and this is a co-production with the Chekhov International Theatre Festival in Moscow. We can see why: it is a Three Sisters for connoisseurs.

Simplicity and clarity of staging allow the complexity to emerge gradually. Rather than overlaying anything extraneous in the form of reinterpretation, the layers already present in the text are excavated. It helps to know the play in advance: to know that three sisters in a provincial town at the turn of the 20th century yearn for wider horizons. For them, this is synonymous with a return to Moscow and an opportunity to use their "superfluous knowledge".

The play's focus is not on what happens, though there are 'events', certainly: a fire, a duel, a love affair. The emphasis is on what the characters say about themselves and how that changes over the years, as disappointments mount and threaten to crush them. Increasingly, their faith is placed in a distant future, in which the audience is implicated, through their direct address to us.

The freshness here comes from precision, as Donnellan and Ormerod pay attention to every detail of performance and characterisation, picking out the isolation of each character within the close-knit group. The soldier Solyony's attempt to seduce the youngest sister Irina is portrayed as a violent sexual assault, the shock of which propels her towards a pragmatic marriage with the Baron. Here Olga, the eldest sister and reluctant headmistress, often portrayed as a ramrod, is as sensitive as her siblings. Drawn towards Vershinin, her sister Masha's lover, she makes him practise his farewell speech to Masha with a steeliness that borders on satisfaction.

Masha's brilliant smile and desperate laughter suggest she knows all along that her love for Vershinin will never flower; that he will depart with his regiment, leaving her with her husband Kulygin. Blotting out the evidence of her affair, Kulygin buries his head in a pillow on her lap, seeking comfort from her like a little boy, the child they never had. One of many delicate moments, it matches in expressive imagery the question Olga asks the audience at the end: why is there so much suffering? Helen Meany, The Irish Times at the Gaiety Theatre. 20 October 2009

2007

5 stars
This is a great production, and a thrilling rediscovery of a great and familiar play. Declan Donnellan has lifted from it the bittersweet mist of gentility and melancholy. The Prozorov girls are young, beautiful, playful and sophisticated: not provincial dreamers, but confident Moscow girls from a good family. They laugh a lot and, as the play darkens, the laughter becomes mocking, ironical, angry, desperate, a form of self-defence and relief. The tragic side of the play becomes more deeply painful: they are proud in defeat. The play is in Russian; most of the actors reached maturity in postGorbachev Russia, and their work has a defiant self-assertion. Alexander Feklistov's middle-aged Vershinin is masterly: sweet-natured and a little awkward, he's never been handsome, but he has a boyish eagerness that warms the play. John Peter, The Sunday Times. 6 May 2007
5 stars
Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the artistic directors of Cheek By Jowl, are in the unusual position of being considered national treasures in two countries - their native England and their adoptive Russia. The company's visiting productions had so impressed Moscow and St Petersburg that in 1999 the Theatre Federation took the unprecedented step of inviting them to form a Russian counterpart to Cheek By Jowl. This luminous version of Three Sisters, brilliantly performed by that ensemble, constitutes a complete explanation of why the Russians have taken Donnellan and Ormerod to their hearts.

I have never seen a production of the play that moved with such expressive fluency or that communicated its volatile, contradictory moods with a more piercing precision. We first see the three sisters and their brother Andrei grouped as if for a family portrait - civilised, harmonious and in a pose that, while it would have gratified their father, the General, is simply unsustainable since his death, which has left them stranded as over-educated, self-doubting misfits in this remote, crashingly dull provincial town.

The staging gives itself a marvellous freedom of manoeuvre by eschewing fussy realism. There's a doll's-house, a wind-up gramophone, a scattering of chairs and tables: changes of setting are swiftly evoked by arranging these items in various configurations. In the second scene, where a visit from the mummers is awaited, the tables become a kind of inner stage with candles as footlights and thus can act as a platform for the philosophising bout between Vershinin and Tuzenbach.

Throughout, you get a strong sense of people striving to rouse themselves from depression. True to Chekhov, the production underlines how tragic feeling can erupt in desperate laughter and playfulness. You see this in a splendidly handled sequence in the scene after the fire. On her usual fault-finding rounds of the house, the usurping sister-in-law Natasha (Ekaterina Sibiryakova) crosses the stage with a candle, too absorbed to acknowledge the sisters. A comment by Masha that "the way she goes about you'd think that it was she who started the fire" reduces the trio to convulsions of mirth. Their contentious sibling intimacy, the humour that can bubble up even in extremis because of long family history, and their snooty conspiratorial bond against the vulgar, awkward Natasha: all of this is beautifully revealed.

Nelly Uvarova is the most haunting Irina that I've encountered. She projects to perfection the confused, fearful yearning of a girl who, at 24, feels that the capacity to love has become imprisoned within. Evgenia Dmitrieva is an unusually attractive Olga - lonely yet stoic, fanning herself with a handkerchief as if trying to whisk away the unwelcome news of Masha's adulterous passion but matter-of-factly throwing a glass of water over Irina when the latter succumbs to hysterics. You learn volumes about the sad, hopeless marriage of Irina Grineva's Masha and the schoolteacher Kulygin here when he beseechingly plumps a pillow against her womb and lays his head on it like a little boy anxious to be comforted. Not that you feel that their union would have been any happier had she given him children.

It's never occurred to me before to speculate about what happens to Bobik, the sisters' sickly and much cosseted baby nephew. But here, because of the Russian cast, I fell to wondering how he fared in that country's future. Were his mother's genes dominant or those of his father? Did he become a Soviet apparatchik or was he purged? Paul Taylor, The Independent at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry. 4 May 2007
5 stars
I cannot imagine a more delicate, luminous and emotionally piercing production of Chekhov's drama than Cheek By Jowl's. Performed by the company's Russian ensemble, it is directed by Declan Donnellan with utter precision, while Nick Ormerod's design, with its tiny symbolic doll's house and oppressive backdrop of perilously tilting walls and windows, conveys the way in which the Prozorov family home is both prison and sanctuary. And the acting is nothing short of sublime.

Donnellan never neglects the underlying playful girlishness, born of a shared sibling history, that continually bobs to the surface, buoy-like, to keep the sisters afloat even at their most anguished. After the fire of Act III, the trio cling tearfully together as Nelly Uvarova's huge-eyed Irina grows almost hysterical. When Ekaterina Sibiryakova, as Natasha, appears, it is as if she has stumbled upon a conspiracy, and the sisters' distress dissolves into illicit giggles. It's little wonder that Natasha, so entirely excluded and who begins in Sibiryakova's performance as pretentious and ambitious, yet touchingly gauche, turns as spectacularly nasty as she does here.

The lightness that illuminates the production lies partly in the sisters' childlike spontaneity and sense of the absurd, and partly in the characters' observance of social convention. Evgenia Dmitrieva's lonely, exhausted Olga busies herself, smilingly, with domestic details; and even as Irina Grineva's Masha wonders how she can continue to bear her 'wretched life' she laughs, politely, helplessly. Yet when she meets Alexander Feklistov's Vershinin, balding, kind and sensitive, part lover, part father-figure, she slyly and appreciatingly flicks her eyes over his body while his back is turned. It's deliciously naughty.

The characters' frustrated connections stack up with a mounting sense of dread. Conversations are interrupted by a yawn, a guffaw or a sottise. Andrey pours out his heart to a deaf servant; Solenyi's unwelcome attentions to Irina culminate in actual sexual assault. Kulygin places a cushion against the belly of Masha and buries his head in it for comfort, as if yearning for the children and happy home she might give him were she not filled with boredom and contempt.

And when Irina is given a spinning top as a name-day present, the entire household wordlessly watches it pointlessly revolve, an economically eloquent image of their futile lives. Heartbreaking simplicity; simply heartbreaking. Sam Marlowe, The Times at Cambridge Arts Theatre. 30 April 2007